Like the beginning of a new year, the shift into summer can spur romantic notions and resolutions. There is something to the season change that causes reverie. Could it be that God has designed us this way?
During the sixth century, Gregory the Great of Italy writes that our conscious contemplation is critical to our Christian lifestyle. The contemplative life, according to Gregory, is to “hold fast with the whole mind” to our relationship with God, eagerly and even passionately to feel His presence. The contemplative is eternal because it continues after death and is “perfected” in heaven. To develop the contemplative then, we must begin by focusing on God, and not actions, as Mary did with Christ. Once we are centered on God, then we are able “to bear the weight of corruptible flesh with grief.” This implies a change in our mindset once we’ve begun the process. In a way, we grieve for heaven since we are not there because our fleshly nature weighs upon our spirits. Gregory terms it a “mental struggle” because “He [God] withers every carnal desire in us.” This step is a striving, a good and eager striving, to understand God. Yet Gregory does stipulate that the contemplative element follows the active portion. It must happen in that order.
Contemplation follows action.
Gregory defines the active life as literal—doing good works. He lists what believers should do such as “to give bread to the hungry, to teach the ignorant with the word of wisdom, to set aright the lost, to recall a proud neighbor” and others. It is more than productivity and more than influencing others—it is caring for those God has placed around us. This life is “laborious” and “fatiguing” yet the work must come before we can rest in His presence. He cites Jacob’s wife Leah as an example of labor and the active life because Jacob always returned to her, and she bore him sons. If we have labored well then, the active life continues by reproducing “many sons in the good work.”
This developing process, attaining the contemplative and active life, is also circular according to Gregory, for “the spirit frequently reverts from the contemplative to the active, so that the active life may be lived the more perfectly because the contemplative has kindled the mind.” One is dependent upon the other, and at the same time, holds great influence.
The active life and the contemplative life are intertwined . . .
Stewarding our relationship with God will show itself in our physical actions as our “inward love increases” and the “strength of the flesh undoubtedly declines.” If we are fully committed to living this intertwined life, then “when the quiet of the contemplative life prevails in the mind there is silence in Heaven because the noise of actions dies away from thought so that the spirit inclines to the secret inner ear,” a benefit that our souls should not forget (Psalm 103:2).
from Homilies on the Book of Ezekiel
I FEEL LIKE I'M ALWAYS READING with plenty more to read, but I don't think I would ever describe myself as a well-read person. I have a feeling I'm not the only one too. I like reading and learning, plain and simple.
I thought I'd share bits of my summer stack from last year. My stack is incomplete without my Kindle reads, but it's a fair representation. Here are my categories:
FAVORITE LIGHT READS.
Reality shows are fascinating things, but I'm not in one, nor would I want to be. Who would truly want to be at the mercy of a TV production team? You would have no control over how you appear or which version of you might appear on the screen thanks to the wonder of sound bites and clips without context.
How about a picture of a day in the life of a teacher instead? I'm not sure I'm a typical teacher. What does the word typical mean anyway?
I have a privileged position. I really do. The graduating class at our small high school has only sixteen seniors this year. Most years we have fewer than thirty. Last year, I chose to add to my normal parting gift of a heartfelt note and gave each senior a pocket size poetry book. Typical frugal educator that I am, I used my Barnes and Noble coupons every few weeks and eventually purchased enough of the same five books.
This year I started even earlier in the semester because I really wanted to give a meaningful volume that spoke to each student. And yes, that is quite the endeavor. Who wants to give something that will lay dust-ridden on a shelf or languish in a box of lost toys? Sorry, that’s the Island of Lost Toys.
I chose these for pure readability and simple pleasure, hoping that the beauty of word choice would shine, even in the event of an obscure line or two. I could share all sixteen book choices, but that might scare you away. Instead here is the array that just might fit as you consider presents for any type of graduate.
Weary at last with way-worn wandering
4. No worthy list can ignore nature, and this is a terrible thing because I enjoy so many nature poets. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Willa Cather, Percy Shelley. It is limitless and varied. Maybe I can include two twentieth century ones then? I would choose the newest 2017 Sterling Selected Poems of Robert Frost, illustrated edition for its keepsake quality. Thomas Nason’s woodcut engravings that have accompanied several Frost volumes in decades past are included in glossy full-page contrast. The pages long to be touched. One hundred poems feature Frost and his New England at their best. Secondly I am torn between Richard Wilbur and Wendell Berry, but alas Berry has published several smaller volumes, that is “approachable” volumes, for young readers. I chose A Small Porch, which contains his Sabbath poems from 2014 and 2015 plus an extended essay on nature—
The best of human work defers always to the in-forming beauty of Nature’s work . . . It is only the Christ-life, the life undying, given, received, again given, that completes our work.
5. And now for the Emilys, or is it Emmys? For Gothic verse, for sheer empathic skill in one so young, I enjoy the Everyman edition of Emily Bronte. Once again, it’s bite-sized and not as thick a tome as her complete poems. True, Bronte often deals in death and grief because it was the reality of the day, but that should not dissuade us or obscure her brighter moments. Consider "No Coward Soul Is Mine" and "Love and Friendship."
I trust these are helpful choices, and I especially would love to hear your gift suggestions.
Comment on my blog or message me through my Contact page, and let's share together!
My students can not get over how Ivan Ilych responded to the inherent compassion in his servant Gerasim. The class devolved into argument quickly— “Was it just the presence of Gerasim? Was it who he was?” or “Was it actually what he did for Ivan?” or “Had he never met a sincere person before?”
I think the difficulty lay in that most had already determined who they thought Ivan was—a shallow, purposeless man. Now he’s enfeebled by a wasting disease that isn’t diagnosable. And what’s worse, Ivan accidentally brought it on himself by bumping his side when hanging curtains in his house that resembled all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class. Yes, Ivan had always lived for lighthearted pleasure and propriety. Yes, he’s shallow, but not so superficial that he didn’t recognize goodness when he saw it.
The irony was clear to my class—a servant peasant is caregiver, not a family member. No other character in the novella is described as clearly either. The spotlight couldn’t be brighter. He says little, but his behavior tells all.
Gerasim was a clean, fresh peasant lad, grown stout on town food and always cheerful and bright . . . Gerasim with a firm light tread, his heavy boots emitting a pleasant smell of tar and fresh winter air, came in wearing a clean Hessian apron, the sleeves of his print shirt tucked up over his strong bare young arms; and refraining from looking at his sick master out of consideration for his feelings, and restraining the joy of life that beamed from his face, he went up to the commode.
Respectful, humble, compassionate, good. Surely he represents every virtue. Ivan continues to observe him and seems to see his own life more clearly in the light of Gerasim’s presence:
His mental sufferings were due to the fact that that night, as he looked at Gerasim’s sleepy, good-natured face with its prominent cheek-bones, the question suddenly occurred to him: ‘What if my whole life has been wrong?’
Now my class wonders if Gerasim is Christ in some way because his juxtaposed presence brings out truth. I ask in return “Does he have to be? Could he represent anyone or anything else?” After all, his character seems to disappear in the final chapters once Ivan begins to hear an inner voice. That alone may be key because my students wonder why Gerasim doesn’t talk through things with Ivan. Why didn’t Tolstoy use him more?
The most sincere response I heard was that Gerasim was a seed who brought light, comfort, joy, and even beauty—the perfect servant. Though there’s so much more to the full story and its spiritual meaning, Gerasim was just the beginning.
Maybe it does take the paradox of goodness in someone, moments when we witness or see a deep sincerity, hear a piercing truth. Moments when we weren’t looking at ourselves first. Moments when we really see.
When I first wrote about how to understand poetry in the fall, I heard from so many of you. Some shared suggestions and many more requested ideas. If you missed my first article, see On Teaching My Husband Poetry. Appreciating poetry begins with finding poetry you like, poems that resonate and delight. Though he unarguably had a tumultuous life, Percy Bysshe Shelley writes in an enjoyable and, I feel, understandable way. Don’t dismiss his work because of a few “thees” and “thys.” Read through it once, then twice, to get a feel.
One of the things I enjoy about Shelley’s descriptive poetry is that it is leading—he leads you to his thoughts. Poet notes. Unlike other Romantics who might get a bit lost in their creation and idealistic philosophy, Shelley is quite clear. The story goes that as he and his wife Mary, yes Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame, were on an evening stroll in Italy in 1820, Mary commented on the evensong of the skylark, prompting Shelley’s ode.
In celebration of spring, let’s look at this popular poem together.
To a Skylark
So easy to hear and see and experience, And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest. This simple songbird is so like the Heavens he comes from that his notes are like arrows, sharp and pointed at our hearts. This expression of beauty, this skylark, is so unearthly that Shelley asks how we can know it is of the earth. What can we compare it to? He employs simple similes: a poet (himself?), a maiden, a glow-worm, a rose. Each appeals to a different perspective and physical sense.
I think Shelley aspired to be as skilled with words as the skylark was with song, an experiential song of pure beauty.
Shelley then returns to a direct tone of command. He wants to know from the skylark itself, Teach us, Sprite or Bird, What sweet thoughts are thine. What are you singing of? Shelley then imagines what the bird might see before he realizes that it cannot love like a human can. That—that is something it cannot sing of, the pain or annoyance of love gone wrong. Yet maybe that is why its song is so pure.
Shelley maintains our love on earth is all the more joyful, more deep even, than what the skylark sings of because we can experience sorrow and pain. Perhaps it is the job of the poet to reveal. Consider two parts: Like a Poet hidden / In the light of thought, / Singing hymns unbidden, / Till the world is wrought / To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not. And Thy skill to poet were. I think Shelley aspired to be as skilled with words as the skylark was with song, a song of pure beauty.
The British Library also features historical commentary on "To a Skylark."
Binge drinking, binge eating, and binge-worthy shows speak to man’s addictive nature. But what about binge reading? Publishing houses and their marketing machines presume it’s all about sequels and series. “Give them more!” they cry.
But the truth is that avid readers have done it for centuries, even for the same book.
Two hundred years ago even the wealthiest purchased subscriptions to lending libraries because books were still quite expensive. Thus, reading audiences across Europe were understandably small until the educated population increased. It’s no wonder that reading more than one book or rereading one would be considered an indulgence.
My reading binges usually correspond with school breaks or a long weekend. It’s a predictable thing. Give me some time off of work, especially time in airports, and I speed read. My travel home from Los Angeles last week made way for two full novels in twelve hours. Though I didn’t choose them for depth, I did find myself learning new things and appreciating both authors.
Louis L’Amour’s Callaghen features a veteran soldier in his thirties who has the right amount of grit and instinct to stay alive with his patrol in the Mojave Desert post-Civil War. Irish to the core, Callaghen is clear L’Amour hero material: He was a tall man, with wide shoulders, a well-setup man who ordinarily moved easily and with some grace. Around the post he was something of a mystery. He is a clear underdog, and you find yourself easily rooting for a cliched character: He rode straight into the morning, his gun ready, and death rode with him, almost at his side.
The story is almost too predictable, too suitable for an easy read. The characterization is flat as can be, but L’Amour has a way with action scenes blended with a heavy setting in this plot. It’s clear that he researched a great deal because the desert is a living character throughout the story, for the desert is always waiting . . . the desert itself speaks, for the earth lives, and in the night’s stillness one can hear the earth growing, hear the dying and the borning and the rebirth of many things. A bit of sand trickles, a rock falls, a tree whispers of moans—these are the breathings of the earth. Oh, the setting! I want to write like that. I was captivated by this place of life and death and felt that alone made the novel worthy reading.
Published twenty years later, Chinua Achebe’s sequel to Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease is a 1950s drama illustrating the tension of modern culture grating against village wisdom. Achebe’s clever use of dialogue uniquely reflects the people, and I for one, loved to hear them speak.
The story follows the life of Nigerian Obi Okonkwo, the eldest son of Isaac Okonkwo and the first selected by the Umuofia village to go to university in London. He has four years to pay back four years of schooling once he returns. And return he does, though not as the expected lawyer nor with the ideal wife. Okonkwo finds employment in the large city of Lagos and quickly discovers how easy it is to spend his advance salary and how to land in debt.
As a member of the scholarship board, Okonkwo idealistically refuses bribes of any kind. He expresses how he hoped to be the one who changes the government system, and everyone knows it all runs on bribery. Unfortunately, things do fall apart. His mother falls ill, and he travels to his native village where he is forbidden to marry his girflriend Clara because she is osu, a Nigerian whose family line had once been dedicated to pagan gods.
As the plot continues, the one thing I am struck by is how similar this story is to the American play of the 1950s. Think the despondency of Death of a Salesman. Though written in 1994, Achebe lands the story firmly in a patch of modern malaise, the feeling that yes, things will fall apart, and yes, things will only get worse. And more so, the characters and the story will lose hope, if they ever had a bit at all. The theme is familiar, yet Achebe’s writing style remains engaging.
My brief binge is over, and I have many books on my platter yet. Yes, a platter. Who has room for a mere plate anyway?
I surprised myself today. As I was teaching my high school juniors and we were discussing the end of A Tale of Two Cities, we reviewed how Sydney Carton managed to switch places with Darnay. We had been discussing what he could represent, noting that Dickens himself calls Carton “Advocate” rather than lawyer or defender in the final chapters. I reread two scenes related to Sydney Carton.
Here I was reading aloud, reading a most poignant moment where the young unnamed seamstress asks to hold Carton’s hand before they journey to the tumbrils and then La Guillotine. She was sure she was addressing Darnay, the prisoner she knew the year before in the cruelest of prisons, La Force—until the critical moment when she gazes up into his face. It was then she saw it was Carton, a complete stranger. But she knew. She knew he was there to save the lives of Darnay, Lucie, and little Lucie, who were escaping brutal Paris at that very moment.
After we hear of the swift demise of our villainess, Charles Dickens returns to the hapless pair. Carton and the little seamstress are now traveling in the last tumbril, he the supposed celebrity execution of the day. But they are oblivious. He holds her hand, looking at her and she at him. In their final moments ascending the scaffold, she thanks him, saying--
But for you dear stranger, I should not be so composed, for I am naturally a poor little thing, faint of heart, nor should I have been able to raise my thoughts to Him who was put to death, that we might have hope and comfort here today. I think you were sent to me by Heaven.'
As I read aloud today, I began to tear up and my voice wavered. My class noticed of course. I promptly apologized for my emotion, stating that this scene simply undoes me. I have read this novel at least seven times now. Each time. Yes, each time, I cry. Each time, I think to myself, “I know what’s coming. I won’t cry today.” My classes laugh it off, I dab at my eyes, and a few brave souls admit to being overcome when they read it alone at home the night before.
At the end of the school day, however, I began to ponder why Dickens’ writing has that effect on me. He’s quite guilty of sentimentality at times. Think of when Lucie faints after her husband is taken away and Carton carries her to the carriage while young Lucie whispers, “I think you will do something to help mamma, something to save papa! O, look at her, dear Carton! Can you, of all the people who love her, bear to see her so?” Oh yes, drops of sappiness ooze through hyperbolic drama.
Perhaps I cry because of the pathos of the moment. Maybe it’s because Dickens has elevated this lowliest of sinners to a place of sacrifice from the greatest fidelity of an unselfish love. Yet, I’m hesitant. Dare I say, I think it’s the beauty of the scene captured in the beauty of words. Not overdone in this instant, but perfectly balanced with the image of a formerly wicked man being the redemption, the “prophetic” coming to life before our eyes, saving the generations of every Darnay and Manette to come. It took a full novel to come to this scene of import, and I think that—yes, that is the moment the heart, my heart, recognizes the beauty in the depth of this storyteller’s words.
Then Jesus calling out with a loud voice said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this, he breathed his last. And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle when they saw what had taken place returned home beating their breasts.
If they were family members, they would have torn their clothes. Keriah. But a public crowd still showed grief by pounding on their hearts, for the majority of them did not understand that Christ would be resurrected.
ELIJAH AS PRECURSOR Let's continue reading in Matthew 27.
And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
This is 800 years after Elijah had lived on earth. The people must have thought Elijah could save Jesus, perhaps chariot and all. Yet within a few verses Jesus dies.
Above all, just like Elisha who tore his clothes in two, this was and is not a sign of grief. The tearing of the veil at the moment of Jesus' death dramatically symbolized that His sacrifice, the shedding of His own blood, was a sufficient atonement for sins. It signified that now the way into the Holy of Holies was open for all people, for all time, both Jew and Gentile.
When Jesus died, the curtain was torn, and God moved out of that place never again to dwell in a temple made with hands according to Acts 17:24. In a sense, the veil was symbolic of Christ Himself as the only way to the Father (John 14:6). Before, the high priest had to enter the Holy of Holies through the curtain. Now Christ became our High Priest, and as believers in His finished work, we can enter the Holy of Holies through Him.
Hebrews 10:19-20 says that the faithful enter into the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the veil, that is, through his flesh. Here we see the image of Jesus’ flesh being torn for us.
As Elisha tore his clothes, knowing he was walking into a double portion and a new life, Christ tore the veil for us so that we can walk into a new life that He prepared.
CLOAKS. ROBES. CLOTHING MADE OUT OF ANIMAL HAIR.
We could call it Old Testament fashion, but it all appears in the Book of Kings. In 2 Kings 1, Ahab’s son Ahaziah received the awful truth that he wouldn't recover from his fall. After sending for messengers to inquire of Baal about whether he would live, God sent Elijah to intercept and ambush them with the truth that Ahaziah would die.
But Ahaziah's messengers didn't know Elijah. They had only learned a name. Elijah’s name meant My God is Yah-weh. We know Moses learned firsthand that Yahweh meant I am who I am. Once Ahaziah heard of Elijah, he had to know who the man was. How was he identified by the messengers? By his clothes! He wore a garment of hair with a leather belt, yes, just like John the Baptist in Matthew, except John wore camel hair. One Jewish translation reads that Elijah didn’t wear hairy clothes, but that he was a hairy man!
As the account in Kings continues in 2 Kings 2:6-8, it was time for Elijah to go to heaven. He said to Elisha, Please stay here, for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the sons of the prophets also went and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground.
AN ACT OF FAITH
Elijah had already anointed Elisha to take his place as prophet because God told him to in 1 Kings 19. Everyone knew Elijah would be taken up to heaven that day. After he asked Elisha what he wanted from him, Elisha responds, I want a double portion of your spirit. Or I want double of the gift that is in you as a prophet of God. Almost immediately the fiery horses and chariot appear to whisk Elijah away. It’s as if God and Elijah were waiting for Elisha to complete that act of faith. Elijah had completed his purpose on this earth. He had given away what he had been given by God, and God multiplied it to Elisha.
Elisha cried “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen! And he saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. 2 Kings 2:12
Why tear his clothes? When someone dies in Jewish culture, family members and friends tear their clothes immediately when it happens or when they hear the news. In Genesis, Jacob, for instance, tore his clothes when he thought his son Joseph had died. David tore his when King Saul died. Even Levitical priests weren't allowed in the temple if they were observing keriah. It doesn’t mean tearing clothes to bits and ruining them, but it is an outward expression signifying grief. Some say it is symbolic of the soul shedding its garments.
Elisha tore his entirely. He was no longer the apprentice but the prophet of Israel. He was not going from the old to the new but walking into a new season in his life.
Continue reading next week to see how this connects to Christ and the temple.